Author: Suleman Sheikh

November 4, 2020

Beirut Is a Shambles, and Syrian Refugees Are Willing to Help

International donors are wary—but the country’s most reviled residents are making the difference.

Syrian workers are rebuilding blast-hit areas in Beirut, one window at a time. Often reviled for allegedly burdening the civic infrastructure, stealing jobs, and living off subsidies meant for the Lebanese, Syrian refugees have shown up in Lebanon’s hour of need. They are building windows, repairing doors, painting houses, and replacing glass in high-rise apartment buildings—some of which belong to the same Lebanese who have long rooted for the refugees to leave.

For all their manual labor, they have received only a pittance—payment further devalued by a plummeting Lebanese pound that has lost 80 percent of its value since a year ago. But more bothersome for many is the continued lack of respect. Hardly any of the refugees toiling to resurrect Beirut to its former glory believe their contribution will be remembered.

Almost three months after thousands of tons of unsafely stored ammonium nitrate exploded at Beirut’s port and damaged many districts popular with locals and tourists, much of the city still lies in ruins. The international community has so far only provided minimal emergency aid

The efforts, numerous and well meant, fall far short of what is required to rebuild and revive the city. None has received any help from the government, and most have yet to receive support from international agencies.

As the political elite quarrels over ministries and the international community scrambles to help, Syrian workers are visible on the streets. Syrians, too, died in the catastrophe and left behind desperate families. At least 40 were killed in the blast, hundreds were injured, and eight are still hospitalized. The living conditions of Syrians in Lebanon deteriorated in tandem with their hosts, but since they were already the bottom rung of society, it pinched them harder.

These Syrian refugees are the very same people who have proved to be more reliable for home- and business owners who have, on their own, started to slowly repair their damaged properties.

October 29, 2020

COVID-19 and economic downfall reveal migrant workers’ mental health crisis in Lebanon

In the midst of the COVID-19 lockdown and the economic crisis in Lebanon, the mental health and well-being of migrant workers has severely deteriorated.

Access to healthcare by migrant workers is very restricted in Lebanon, due to the nature of the employment model to which they are tied – known as the Kafala system – which makes them dependent on a sponsor. The mental health of migrant workers – many of whom are young women – reflects the hardships they have endured while living and working in Lebanon.  

Migrant workers are often subjected to long working hours, low wages, and restrictions on their movements and on their communication with the outside world, poor living conditions and a lack of privacy.

The onset of the COVID-19 lockdown – which came on top of the ongoing economic crisis in Lebanon – saw a dramatic decline in migrant workers’ conditions and is having a dire impact on their physical and mental health.

SEMA US has launched an emergency clinic for women and children affected by the crisis and who are in need of medical care. It receives an average of 100 patients a day for medical consultations. SEMA US provides social, mental and medical assessments and refers patients to partner clinics when needed. 

Migrant workers, including those without legal status in the country, should have access to comprehensive health services – including mental healthcare. In the current context of economic collapse and COVID-19, the provision of these services is urgently needed.

October 22, 2020

Lebanon imposes night curfew, close bars as COVID-19 patients exceed 53,000

The number of COVID-19 patients in Lebanon passed 53,000 with an average of 1,500 cases a day. 

The number of towns to be isolated increased to 169 towns, while the Ministry of Interior closed all bars, cabarets and nightclubs until further notice. Night curfews will be imposed from midnight until 6 a.m. throughout Lebanon. 

The Ministry of Interior said that the measures were to address “the ongoing pandemic reality and the increasing number of infected people in a way that exceeds the scientifically permissible rates in regions and towns, to enable the Ministry of Health teams to conduct the necessary laboratory examinations and tracking.” 

The Ministry of Interior stressed the necessity for using face masks, avoiding overcrowding, maintaining safe social distance, closing all official and private departments and institutions, and canceling all social events in isolated areas. 

MP Cesar Maalouf warned that Lebanon “has entered the stage of medical disaster in terms of hospital capacity, securing medicines and the high rate of infections, and we do not want to follow the Italian scenario. All private hospitals must open their doors to those infected with the coronavirus because government hospitals are on the verge of collapse.”

Before reaching a terrible storm of infections if not controlled before winter, the spread of the virus must be slowed down through isolation, testing and quarantining contacts.

Especially if the number of infected people per day reaches 2,000 or 3,000, then we must be concerned more than ever. What worries us most is the spread of the virus in cities with high population density, especially in Beirut. 

It can be said now that there is a societal spread of the disease, and people can only be protected by wearing face masks and by preventing gatherings, especially in closed places.

October 15, 2020

Meeting the Growing Health Needs of Women and Children Refugees

Walking into a refugee camp is like walking into a desperately overcrowded slum. Many houses are about to collapse, and most people needing care are not able to access hospital treatment. Those most seriously ill die.

Giving women and children new lives and hope in such situations is critical. Lack of access to health care means that there are high rates of deformity, disability, and mortality.

Remas Al Ali, 4, lost her hair and many doctors told her family that it will no longer grow again.

Remas family visited a pediatric clinic supported by SEMA US and started their therapy journey with Dr. Akram. He set a long term therapy plan after he did a clinical evaluation for her.

Three months later, the hair started to gradually grow again, and today the girl’s hair grows completely. Thanks to the accuracy and humanitarian treatment that the clinic offers for its patients.

Our Women and Children Clinic in Lebanon provides general medical assistance to people affected by conflict, epidemics, disasters, or exclusion from healthcare access. The outpouring of interest and support from our donors keep improving women’s and young patients’ adherence towards a healthier quality of life. 

SEMA US is working on multiple levels to secure healthcare reform, provide access to services, and raise awareness about women and children’s health and the need to take action.

Lebanon’s public health system has shown a lot of resilience throughout multiple crises but is now under severe strain. So many more families and refugees are pushed to the edge of poverty and despair. As this crisis continues to unfold, Their ability to survive depends on humanitarian organizations like us and on the continued generosity of people like YOU. 

October 8, 2020

Women and children face greater dangers during COVID-19 pandemic

The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic is having potentially catastrophic secondary impacts on the health of women and children. Decisions made at every level of the response to the pandemic are resulting in women being further cut off from sexual and reproductive health services, threatening sharp rises in maternal and neonatal mortality.

Women and children are often denied care outright or face dangerous delays getting the services they need. The impacts of misguided policies and barriers to care are especially severe in places with weak or overburdened health systems. Thousands more lives will get lost when safe delivery, neonatal, and family planning services become inaccessible due to the outbreak.

SEMA US teams at our medical projects, although trying their best to keep the core services running, are already seeing the painful indirect effects of the pandemic on women’s lives:

  • closures and cuts to sexual and reproductive health services
  • movement restrictions, including travel bans, lockdowns, and curfews
  • supply chain disruptions
  • lack of clear public health information and guidance

In addition, there has been significant reporting about the economic impacts of the pandemic, with poor and marginalised communities hardest hit. Refugees, migrant workers, and people working in informal jobs already face extreme difficulties getting access to basic healthcare, and these challenges are compounded by COVID-19.

Sexual and reproductive healthcare is essential healthcare

Sexual and reproductive health needs are often neglected in the midst of an emergency – and COVID-19 has been no different. In March, the World Health Organization (WHO) issued interim guidance for maintaining essential services during an outbreak, which included advice to prioritise services related to reproductive health and make efforts to avert maternal and child morbidity and mortality.

Nevertheless, frontline providers were forced to make tough choices about which services are most important, women were often left out. Resources for women’s healthcare were sometimes diverted to support COVID-19 activities.

Although access to safe delivery care has long been acknowledged as an essential health service, many pregnant women suddenly found themselves with fewer options for care. 

October 1, 2020

Iraq: COVID-19 in Baghdad is “very alarming”

The COVID-19 emergency in Iraq continues to escalate,  with the country reporting close to 4,000 new cases a day and approximately 500 deaths a week. In the past month, more than 100,000 cases have been detected in the country, and on September 23, 5,055 new COVID-19 cases were confirmed, representing the highest daily rate in the country since the beginning of the pandemic. Iraq’s capital, Baghdad, is the worst-hit city, with almost 30 percent of the country’s reported cases.

We’re trying to do our best to support the efforts of Iraqi health authorities in tackling the virus, even though our capacity is limited. Even with the high number of patients we see at the moment, we are not sure where we are on the epidemiological curve. From what we can see, the situation is deeply worrying. SEMA US teams are assisting in the Respiratory Care Unit (RCU) in primary health facilities, providing training for staff, administration of medication, and implementation of techniques adapted for the treatment of COVID-19.

By the time we have a free bed, patients are already in really bad shape.

Despite efforts to control the spread of the virus, the growing number of severe and critical cases has recently overwhelmed health facilities treating people with COVID-19. 

Many patients stay in the RCU for 15 to 20 days to be treated, meaning that sometimes new patients are put on the waiting list for two, maybe three days, until they can get the treatment they need. By the time we have a free bed, patients are in really bad shape. It is really distressing to watch these people wait for a bed. 

The waiting lists and lack of bed capacity are not the only issues in Baghdad. Some people are waiting to come to the health facility when it’s almost too late to seek treatment. Some people in the city do not appreciate the gravity of the situation, and they are not taking prevention measures.

These people seem to be avoiding treatment due to the heavy social stigma associated with COVID-19 in the community. We think many people sometimes only realize how bad the situation is when they or a loved one is brought to the health facility. They see patients dying, very quickly, every day. Then they realize the reality of the situation.

Iraqi health workers have also been very badly affected, with almost 15,000 cases among this group since the start of the outbreak. This risk to health care workers comes at a time when hospitals in Baghdad are dealing with human resource shortages, further complicating an already critical situation.

September 24, 2020

Surge in COVID-19 cases worsens humanitarian challenges in NW Syria

Curbing the spread of COVID-19 is difficult in overcrowded camps

The number of people with COVID-19 in displacement camps in northwest Syria is ten times higher than it was just a month ago. SEMA US continues to support the health system and carry out prevention activities in the camps. 

As of September 26, 825 people had tested positive for COVID-19 in the region, almost 30 percent of them are health workers. Fifty four new cases were recorded on September 26 alone, which is one of the highest one-day total since the first case was recorded in early July. However, testing has remained limited, which raises doubts about the real rate of transmission and the true number of infections in the region.

This is worrying. We’re trying to help people in the camps protect themselves against the virus, but we can’t change the overall situation and the fact that they live in such a place. We need to adapt constantly to provide solutions for these people who already are living in incredibly difficult conditions.

More than two million people—over half of the population—have been displaced by the conflict. Most of them now live in overcrowded camps with limited access to water and poor sanitation. Because of this, control measures like physical distancing, handwashing, and isolating are challenging—if not impossible—for most camp residents.

Since April 2020, SEMA US teams have distributed hygiene kits, including items such as soap and detergent, to thousands of displaced families in several camps.

Our health educators also conduct awareness-raising sessions that explain how COVID-19 is transmitted and how to prevent infection. 

Understanding COVID-19 and knowing more about it is a big step towards avoiding catching it.

We are also working in health facilities to treat patients with COVID-19 or who have other medical needs. For example, SEMA US has set up a triage system in each of the hospitals that we support, co-manage or run. This ensures fast detection of suspected COVID-19 cases while maintaining continuity of care for patients.

September 17, 2020

Syria: Health Workers Lack Protection in Pandemic

Syria is failing to protect health workers at the front line of the Covid-19 pandemic in the territory.

Doctors, aid workers, and civilians in Syria said that the country is overwhelmed, with hospitals beyond capacity, health workers facing serious shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE), and with many of their colleagues and relatives dying after suffering Covid-19 symptoms. The Health Ministry said that 76 health workers had tested positive for the virus as of the end of August. A total of 2,765 confirmed cases and 112 related deaths were reported. However, evidence suggests that the numbers across the country could be significantly higher.

It is bewildering that as the obituaries for doctors and nurses responding to the Covid-19 pandemic pile up, official numbers tell a story at odds with the reality on the ground. Lack of aid for the health of its front-line workers during a global pandemic is sadly no surprise.

Human Rights Watch interviewed three doctors, one nurse, two aid workers, and two experts, reviewed social media posts by people or pages considered reliable sources, and collected reporting by reliable third parties to assess discrepancies in the Syrian government’s reporting on its own response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Those interviewed said that shortages of adequate protective equipment and restricted access to oxygen tanks are most likely contributing to deaths among Syria’s health workers and the wider population. Health workers said that testing, oxygen, and basic medical care are available only to those who can afford it, violating the fundamental right to equal and affordable access to health.

The World Health Organization (WHO) and other organizations with a health mandate should publicly insist on expanding testing capacities and transparent and accurate reporting on numbers of Covid-19 cases and equitable distribution of sufficient personal protective equipment to health workers throughout the country, including rural areas.

Residents said their neighbors and relatives were falling ill or dying after exhibiting symptoms consistent with Covid-19, including high fever and severe respiratory distress. They said that their relatives who had attempted to go to a hospital or clinic were turned away for lack of capacity.

Nurses, doctors, and aid workers who work in hospitals or support their operation from outside Syria said that major hospitals that are prepared to deal with Covid-19 cases have exceeded their capacity, and other hospitals do not have the necessary infrastructure, citing a lack of availability of oxygen canisters, ventilators, and beds. Front-line workers said they do not have the necessary protective equipment, training, or protocols to treat complications from Covid-19.

September 10, 2020

Iraq Hospitals Fear ‘Losing Control’ as Coronavirus Cases Surge

Authorities warn hospitals may ‘lose control’ amid record rise in single-day COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began.

Iraq has recorded its highest single-day rise in COVID-19 cases since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, prompting authorities to warn hospitals may “lose control” in the coming days.

According to the Iraqi health ministry, 5,036 new coronavirus infections were confirmed within 24 hours on Friday, bringing the total number of cases across the country to 252,075, of which 7,359 had died.

The health ministry attributed the spike to recent “large gatherings” that took place without recommended safety measures, including mask-wearing or social distancing.

Karbala’s authorities introduced new measures to stem the spread of the virus, including restricting access to areas of worship and widespread spraying of disinfectants.

But the health ministry warned the measures were not enough.

“The number of cases is expected to escalate further in the coming days, which we fear will lead our health institutions to lose control as they try to deal with these large numbers,” its statement said on Friday.

“This will lead to an increase in the number of deaths, after we made headway in reducing them over the past few weeks.”

Iraq’s hospitals have already been worn down by decades of conflict and poor investment, with shortages in medicines, hospital beds and even protective equipment for doctors.

Before Ashoura, the World Health Organization had warned that COVID-19 cases in Iraq were rising at an “alarming rate” and said Iraq should take action to end the community outbreak “at all costs”.

September 3, 2020

Beirut explosion: Mental health of people affected is under threat

Three weeks after the Beirut blast, Lebanon’s future is dark. Caused by up to 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate irresponsibly stored in the port for more than six years, the explosion killed as many as 180 people, injured 7,000 others, and destroyed 10,000 buildings – around one-third of the city. But rather than acting as a positive jolt to the system as some hoped, the catastrophe has only thrust Lebanon deeper into crisis. 

After responding to the devastating explosion, SEMA US is focusing on restocking medical supplies, strengthening measures against Covid-19, and providing psychosocial support.

Physical wounds have been treated, but the catastrophe and the sudden loss of basic security have done extensive damage to the mental health of people affected. Many patients have asked for sedatives to get over the next twenty-four hours. Our specialists deployed in Lebanon are helping provide psychosocial care for these trauma victims.

SEMA US is also worried that the recent tragedy could lead to an increase in the already rising number of Covid-19 cases in Lebanon.

We are responding in the aftermath of the massive explosion that occurred in Beirut, Lebanon on Tuesday, August 4, 2020. The explosion damaged buildings across a wide swath of the city, leaving many homes without windows or doors. Many people do not want to leave their homes out of security concerns. Volunteers are handing out food packages, visiting vulnerable people and bringing them essential supplies. They also continue to assist in the cleanup efforts.

SEMA US has just started delivering lifesaving healthcare services to vulnerable Syrian refugees and host communities in Lebanon this year.

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